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STLCC-Florissant Valley Offers Training for Hearing Impaired CASS Students

January 02, 2008

Florissant Valley CASS students

Luis Ramas, left, and Juan Carranza, right, spent two months with host family Richard and Nancy Brower, center, while participating in the Cooperative Association of States for Scholarships program at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley. 

Fourteen hearing impaired students, from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic arrived at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley in August to not only study English, basic electronic and computer repair, but also to enrich the campus community with their customs and culture.

The students are part of the Cooperative Association of States for Scholarships (CASS) program, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development and managed by Georgetown University.  The program works with rural communities in Central America and the Caribbean to promote development through scholarships for technical training, leadership and community service.  As part of the training, more than 100 two-year scholarships have been awarded to deaf individuals to study abroad.  In countries where job markets were formerly closed to people with disabilities, hearing impaired CASS alumni have an employment rate of nearly 90 percent.

"At the completion of their program, the students will be prepared to return to their home countries and work in computer repair at companies or open their own small computer repair shops," said Susan McKnight, CASS program coordinator.  "They will be ready to work in service to their communities and be agents of change."

Interdisciplinary Approach

In the college’s 18 year partnership with CASS, this is the first time STLCC has received hearing impaired students as part of the program.  However, Florissant Valley was well prepared as it has one of the top two-year deaf communication studies programs in the country and other needed support services.  Coordination between faculty and staff in the communications and engineering and technology departments also has been integral to the program’s success.

"Communication in the classroom has been pretty good," said Tom Flynn, English instructor at Florissant Valley. "Whenever they can, the CASS students relate their new English vocabulary to their existing Spanish vocabulary."

Also on hand in class is an English as a Second Language instructor and interpreters from the campus Access office. 

Overcoming Communications Challenges

The primary goals of the program are for the CASS students to learn about U.S. culture, values and lifestyles and return to their home countries with marketable skills.  Since arriving in St. Louis, the students have had the opportunity to live with host families, attend local events and participate in campus activities. 

Communication was an issue at first for many host families, who neither spoke Spanish nor knew American Sign Language.  Paul Higdon, professor of music at Florissant Valley, who hosted two students, Juan Carranza of El Salvador and Luis Ramas of Guatemala, for the first two months of their stay.  Higdon said all parties found creative ways to communicate.

"I’m a slow finger speller, and I don’t speak Spanish, so the Spanish/English dictionary saved my life in some cases," he said.  "By the end of the time they were with me, we were able to talk with sign as well as pencil and paper."

Carranza noted another communication issue for the students -- sign language is not universal.

"We initially had a tough time communicating among ourselves," he said through an interpreter.  "Now we are learning English as well as American Sign Language, and it has been rough.  We’ve been studying hard, and now we are able to communicate a lot better."

Enriching Experience

Higdon said the experience enriched his life as well.  "Deaf people are experts at reading others, and are extremely skilled at reading facial expressions," he said.  "They also adjust to many different situations very quickly because they’ve had to adapt heir whole lives.  I’ve learned a lot about communicating -- new ways to pause and think and read other people.  These students also were very grateful and respected us for opening our homes to them.  It was a very valuable experience for me."

Previous CASS participants have studied electronics, quality control, industrial maintenance, telecommunications, hotel and restaurant management and medical laboratory technology.  In all, 231 CASS alumni represent STLCC in 125 countries in Central America and the Caribbean.